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Bill would let Sandy Hook families withhold crime-scene photos, documents

By Mayra Cuevas, CNN
updated 7:44 AM EDT, Tue June 4, 2013
Children in Newtown, Connecticut, return to school on December 18, 2012, four days after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Adam Lanza opened fire in the school, killing 20 children and six adults before killing himself. Police say he also shot and killed his mother in her Newtown home. Children in Newtown, Connecticut, return to school on December 18, 2012, four days after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Adam Lanza opened fire in the school, killing 20 children and six adults before killing himself. Police say he also shot and killed his mother in her Newtown home.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Legislation would require consent of victims' families for release of crime-scene material
  • "What purpose would releasing these document serve?" says the mother of a 6-year-old victim
  • A father of one victim agrees: "For the sake of the surviving children and families"
  • But the head of journalists' group in the state says, "Where do we draw the line?"

(CNN) -- Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is considering legislation that would let families of victims in the Sandy Hook school shooting block release of some crime-scene documents.

The governor's office sent CNN a working draft of the bill. If enacted, it would require written consent of those who survived the shooting or family members of those who died for officials to release photos, video, audio recordings or 911 calls "depicting the physical condition of any victim."

The bill also would allow officials to redact the identity of any minor. It would exempt the release of death certificates as public records, and would limit the release of 911 call recordings. Only transcript portions not containing descriptions of the victims would be made available.

"The purpose of the bill is to give (Sandy Hook) families the right to say they don't want crime scene photos published. It gives the victims' families the right to decide," said Andrew Doba, spokesman for Malloy.

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A lone gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown last December 14, killing 20 children and six educators before taking his own life.

Doba said the governor's office has heard from some who would like the measure to apply to all cases, but the bill under consideration by Malloy would only apply to the victims of the schoolhouse massacre.

"We wanted to craft a very limited bill that prevents the (Sandy Hook) families from going through this again. This seems like a sensible thing to do," said Doba of the draft -- an amendment to state House legislation proposed earlier in the session to increase fees for searches of accident and investigative reports.

Nicole Hockley, whose 6-year-old son, Dylan, was killed, was in Hartford on Monday to speak with legislators in support of the measure.

"I am doing all I can to preserve the image of my child as the whole and complete child that he was," Hockley told CNN.

"What purpose would releasing these document serve? The shooter is dead and in terms of checking first-responder procedures they have all the information they need. The media won't learn anything either. I will defend this as long as possible."

Dean Pinto, father of 6-year-old victim Jack Pinto, wrote a commentary in the Hartford Courant last weekend urging legislators to keep the documents sealed.

"Imagine the impact these images and sounds will have not only on our families, but on the other young children, teachers and first-responders who were there that day and relive the tragedy through horrible nightmares each night. Imagine the impact on all of Newtown," he wrote.

Pinto along with other victims' parents, posted a petition on change.org seeking public support for the measure.

"For the sake of the surviving children and families, it's important to keep this information private," the post reads.

But media representatives expressed concerned about a bill that would limit the Freedom of Information Act.

"Ethical news outlets should be able to decide for themselves which material should be left uncirculated," said Jodie Mozdzer Gil, president of Connecticut's Society of Professional Journalists in an e-mail to CNN.

"Connecticut SPJ is opposed to any effort to limit the public's access to public information. While we understand the need for sensitivity regarding such a terrible tragedy, we do not believe that should extend to the outright blockage of public information," said Gil.

"If we start to limit access to information because the situation is sensitive and tragic, where do we draw the line?" she said.

The same question has been debated in other cities with various results.

Last year a judge in Colorado ordered key investigation records remain sealed in the case against Aurora movie theater shooting suspect James Holmes. But in 1999 Colorado authorities released multiple documents, including video, pertaining to the Columbine High School shooting.

NASCAR driver's Dale Earnhardt's 2001 death in a wreck during the Daytona 500 race presented another public battle for document access. His family filed an injunction to seal his autopsy records and photos. After mediation, the media agreed to appoint an independent expert to review the autopsy documents and file a report. The report's findings led to several safety improvements in the race-car industry.

In 1990 the families of victims murdered by a serial killer in Florida who came to be known as the Gainesville Ripper fought in court to seal the autopsy and crime scene photos. A judge ruled that the public and the media could view 700 grisly crime scene and autopsy photos, under the condition that no copies could be made.

While the public and the media await a decision on Sandy Hook's crime-scene material, the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, a nonprofit organization, says there is no excuse for a delay in the state police report of the findings of their investigation.

James Smith, president of the council, sent a letter last week to the governor calling the delays in the release of information "ridiculous."

"The public, the legislature, and even the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission that you created, all desperately need information about what happened so that intelligent decisions and recommendations can be made and, we hope, prevent another such tragedy," Smith wrote to Malloy.

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